Why Bodybuilding Workout Routines Suck For Building Muscle

bodybuilder 2 wcThe typical bodybuilding workout routines that you’ll read about in all the muscle mags and on thousands of websites are not optimal for building muscle – far from it in fact.

And I know that this might come as a surprise because they are what most people at the gym do all the time; but it’s true nonetheless.

I’m not saying they don’t work at all, because they do – at least for some people. But they are certainly not ideal for the genetically typical natural trainee.

So what is a typical bodybuilding workout routine? What’s wrong with it? And how can it be improved on? In this article I’ll answer those questions.

What Is The Typical Bodybuilding Routine?

Bodybuilding style workout routines are the most popular type of weight training program there is. And although there are many different versions they all tend to have certain characteristics in common. Specifically these include the following…

  • They are body part split routines – that is just one or two muscle groups are trained at each workout.
  • Each body part is trained at a low frequency – just once per week.
  • But overall training frequency tends to be high – often five or six days per week.
  • They are very high volume routines – lots of sets of lots of exercises to work the muscles from every possible angle.
  • They nearly always use the higher rep ranges (usually 8 – 12), with lower reps rarely being used.
  • Most sets are taken to failure – and often beyond.
  • Short rest periods between sets are used virtually all the time.
  • Most of the focus tends to be on the smaller isolation exercises.
  • Changes are made very frequently to “shock the body” or “keep the muscles guessing”.

Now not all bodybuilding routines will incorporate all of these characteristics. But this is basically the type of training I am referring to when I use the term “bodybuilding workout routines”.

So What’s Wrong With This?

Okay, so let’s take a look at each of the above characteristics to see why this type of training sucks for building muscle.

Low Frequency Body Part Splits Suck

Body part splits can actually be very effective if you are past the beginner stage and you structure them properly – like the push/pull/legs split. But the typical bodybuilding style workout split will usually look something like this…

Monday: Chest
Tuesday: Back
Wednesday: Shoulders
Thursday: Arms
Friday: Legs
Sat/Sun: Off

There are several problems with a setup of this sort. First each muscle group is only being trained once per week which is far from ideal. In fact, as I’ve said before, it only takes a muscle 72 – 96 hours to fully recover from an intense effort, so training each body part every 3 to 5 days is ideal. By training them only once per week your progress will be at best slow, and for some people it will be non-existent due to the fact that the muscles will have become de-trained to some extent by the time you work them again.

Also weight training five days per week will be too much for most people. Muscles grow when you rest, not when you train, so it’s best to train just three or four days per week and allow yourself to recover on the other days. And apart from this you will over stress your joints too as you are working upper body movements four times per week. These all heavily involve the shoulder and elbow joints, so it’s no wonder so many trainees suffer from pain and injuries to those particular joints.

And finally most people will neither need nor benefit from an “arm day” or a “shoulder day” and it’s much more efficient and effective to train more muscle groups in the same workout.

The Excessively High Volume Sucks

Volume refers to the total amount of work being done; that is the number of sets, reps and exercises per muscle group, per workout and per week. And whilst you do need a certain amount of volume to optimally stimulate muscle growth, if you do too much it can be detrimental due to recovery issues (as well as overuse injuries). And most typical bodybuilding routines have way too much volume.

You just don’t need 5 sets of 5 different exercises per muscle group per workout. In fact even half this amount is too much. Of course the reasoning behind it is that you do this high level of volume so that it takes a week to recover from it. But it just doesn’t work that way. Your body can only recover from so much and it’s far more effective to do less volume more often.

To be specific, about 30 – 60 total reps per workout for the large muscle groups and about half that for the smaller muscle groups (due to the fact that they get worked indirectly when training the larger muscle groups), with a frequency of around twice per week seems to be just the right amount for virtually everyone past the beginner stage.

The Always Higher Reps Suck

Although it is true that training in the 8 – 12 rep range is great for building muscle, it only really works well when you are strong. So you need the more strength specific (lower rep) training to increase your strength so you’ll be able to use heavier weights for your higher rep sets.

If you always train with higher reps you simply won’t ever develop that degree of strength. Besides which lower rep training can build size as well – just not as effectively as higher rep training. So you need to train at all rep ranges to get the maximum benefits.

Progressive overload, that is gradually increasing the weight you are using over time, especially on the big compound exercises, is the most important factor in developing a really impressive physique. And that should be the main focus for all but the most advanced of trainees.

Look at it this way; the guy who can bench press 225 for 3 sets of 10 will be bigger than the guy benching 135 for 3 sets of 10. And someone who can bench 315 for 3 sets of 10 will be bigger still. Get strong so you can get big.

Always Training To Failure Sucks

Training to failure on occasion will help you build muscle faster. But if you do it too often you will hinder your progress as it’s simply too much to recover from on a regular basis. Constantly training to failure will overtax your central nervous system, your endocrine system and your immune system. So by all means plan phases of training to failure into your program, but don’t do it all the time. And when you do use it, only get to the point of actually failing mid-rep on your last set of an exercise. Also, never fail mid-rep on your lower rep (strength specific) training.

The Always Short Rest Periods Suck

Again short rest periods (i.e anything under two minutes) are an effective muscle building tool because they create more metabolic fatigue. But they are useless for building strength, so you don’t want to be using them all the time and on every exercise.

You can do phases of short rest periods and phases of longer rest periods. Or you can simply have longer rest periods when doing your big compound exercises to facilitate optimum progressive overload, and shorter rest periods when doing your isolation/assistance work.

Either way you need to incorporate both short and longer rest periods between sets into your overall training regimen in order to get maximum benefits.

The Big Focus On Isolation Exercises Sucks

Many bodybuilding routines have a big focus on isolation exercises, and some consist entirely of them. And a routine of that sort is going to suck for building muscle.

Don’t get me wrong, isolation exercises are great – but they should always be the secondary focus of your overall routine; not the primary focus. Exercises like curls, triceps pressdowns, lateral raises, leg curls etc. are all very useful if you are training to build muscle and you are past the beginner stage.

But the main focus of your training should always be on the big compound exercises – the squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, rows, pull-ups etc. These are far more important as it’s these that are going to be responsible for the majority of the results you’ll get.

The Frequent Changes Suck

This is something else you’ll often see in bodybuilding programs – constant change. And again this is not an effective approach to muscle building. You don’t need to shock your muscles, and you can’t “confuse” them either.

Muscle growth requires strength gains, and strength gains require consistency to achieve, not change. So if you are constantly making changes to what you are doing you’ll never get anywhere.

You will of course need to make some changes occasionally, either as part of a logical periodized progression and/or when you have stopped making progress with a particular routine. But the changes should normally be quite small and properly planned. Change for the sake of change is of no use whatsoever.

So What Doesn’t Suck For Building Muscle?

As I’ve said the type of workout routine I’ve been discussing in this article can work for some. But it’s mostly the steroid users or those with amazing genetics – or both. For the vast majority of the population it’s not going to work very well; and for some it just won’t work at all.

And even if you know people (natural or otherwise) who look incredible and are following a routine of this sort, there’s a very good chance that they did not build the majority of their muscle training in this way. They just happen to be training this way now because they are so advanced they believe this is the only way they can make any further progress (which is probably false even for them).

But if you are genetically typical, drug free and not super advanced, the best way for you to train to build muscle optimally is as follows…

If you are a beginner or have yet to make any appreciable progress from your efforts, do a full body workout routine three times per week, focusing on getting stronger on just a few big compound lifts.

Or if you have been training for a while and made some decent gains you have two main options. You could do an upper/lower body split routine, training three or four times per week. Or if you prefer something closer to the traditional bodybuilding style workout routine, but structured in a way that actually works well, you could do the push/pull/legs split, training either four days per week or on a rotating five day cycle (i.e. 2 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off).

But whatever you do be sure to stay away from the typical bodybuilding workout routines because they just suck for building muscle.

Photo credit: Глухоман Сергей Викторович, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

6 Replies to “Why Bodybuilding Workout Routines Suck For Building Muscle”

  1. What about really high rep ranges? You note 12 it seems as considered high, and other places I’ve seen that listed too. I admit I’m running a BB routine right now, I’m halfway through it, and I’m HATING half of it because half of it seems to have me doing 16-20 reps! Frankly while I actually like hitting the gym, I get extremely bored trying to push out 16 reps.

    • Doing sets of 16-20 reps will not do much to help you build muscle as the weights you’ll be using will not be heavy enough to produce a muscle building response. So if you increase the weights and reduce the reps you’ll do a lot better. One exception to this however is high rep squats, which can be used on an occasional basis to help create a more anabolic (muscle building) environment in the body as a whole.

  2. I trained muscle group once a week….and stay in place for long! I eat lot of protein ,carbs and healthy fats but not help! Try training on this way push-pull-legs I start to get bigger and stronger! Thank You!

  3. Thanks for your article. I am a personal trainer at the downtown YMCA in Fort Worth, TX. I have my clients, as well as myself, train chest, back, biceps, and triceps on Day 1, then legs and traps and conditioning on Day 2. We have variations, such as adding some battle ropes and medicine ball slams for conditioning. I HAVE LOST 30 POUNDS IN 3 MONTHS WITH NO TREADMILL, BIKE, OR ELLIPTICAL. At 49 years old, I have kept my strength and size while trimming to 6 feet and 182 pounds. My advanced lifters use a reverse pyramid on bench press; for example, 205 for 6 reps, rest 2 minutes, 185 for 8 reps, rest 2 minutes, and 165 for 10 reps. I just decrease the weight by ten percent with each set. Thanks!! David

    • Glad you liked the article David; and great to hear about the progress you have made. That’s excellent. And yes, reverse pyramid training is a really good way to train.

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